Romero, Carpenter & Craven: Why Horror Has Always Been Political
Nowadays, it is common to hear that horror is “too woke.” Usually, that declaration comes from people who are so used to seeing white people as the protagonists of movies that anything different is automatically seen as pandering to leftist agendas. They say that there is a current obsession with political statements and terms like "inclusion" and "diversity" when the only focus should be the quality of the film. However, that statement is easily defeated if we know a little bit about horror history and some of its leading creators.
Today, I will address the cases of three horror geniuses, perhaps the three biggest names in English-language horror: George A. Romero, John Carpenter and Wes Craven. The men’s filmographies have already been widely dissected, but I decided to simplify: one film per director. They've all incorporated social and political themes into their films, and their messages have rarely been subtle. Is horror more political today than it was in the past, or is it that today – and with the "help" of social media – there are more people who are hypersensitive to social issues that the genre has always cared to make light of?
George A. Romero – Making Social Horror Since the ‘60s!
George A. Romero was not the first filmmaker to portray zombies in the movies, but he was the first to show the world zombies as we know them: attacking in groups, almost blindly, with the existence of specific rules to survive and eliminate them. For this reason, the master is known as the creator of the genre and the father of the modern undead. Romero's first work, a masterpiece of its kind, was released in 1968 with the title Night of the Living Dead.
With this timeless classic, Romero showed traces of the social and political commentary that would pervade his life’s work. It is important to put the movie in the context of the time of its release. The film was released in the late 1960s, an especially violent and complex decade in the U.S., where several social clashes, demonstrations and murders marked the escalation of racial conflicts in the country. Only in that decade did racist Jim Crow laws become illegal, and Romero could not have been clearer in the message he wanted to pass on.
In the lead role, the director placed Duane Jones, a Black man. Of course, this was not at all common at the time, and although Romero stated that Duane's choice had to do with the actor's merit and not with race – which can also be seen as Romero's slap by saying that Black people can be as good or better than white people in any area of society – doing so in the time in question can be easily understood as a slight to the American social hierarchy.
But Romero went even further. And anyone who hasn't seen the original might want to avoid reading the next paragraph.
At the end of Night of the Living Dead, Duane achieved the unthinkable. He came out alive after the attack, having put a clever plan into action that killed and/or drove everyone away. There were people against him, but in the end, he proved that he had more sense than them.
However, in the last scene of the film, Romero shows Duane being shot upon leaving the house by a set of cops who didn't know if Duane was a zombie or not. They didn’t care to check. For them, he could only be on the wrong side of history. Such an ending unfortunately reminds us of several recent events, and I ask myself: if it was a Black director, in 2022, filming an ending like this, how many people wouldn't accuse them of creating an overly woke ending? Have you heard about Get Out's alternative ending? Even the official conclusion– though subverting expectations with a "happy ending" – is a clear homage to this classic film.
Even in his rookie times, Romero made people chilly, and he eventually became known as "the king of political horror.” In a 2010 interview for TIME magazine, Romero said "if there's something in society I want to criticize, I can bring the zombies back." And he did, many times. From consumerism to gun obsession, from populism to the detriment of science, through class war, corporate media power or the “emerging media,” the legend never got tired of showing what he thought about the world. It was never about zombies.
John Carpenter - They Want Us Divided
If you think John Carpenter only gave us Halloween and The Thing, I implore you to look more closely at one of Hollywood's most impressive careers. Often mixing horror with science fiction, John Carpenter usually has a lot to say. In Escape from New York, the author imagines a dystopian and dark future for America, which had been one of the freest countries in the world and had become one of the toughest and most policed fascist regimes. However, perhaps his biggest statement in social terms is the film They Live.
Do you know that little pet hate that some people seem to nourish by using the word “woke”? They Live is the greatest (and most literal) example of someone's movie asking its audience to open their eyes. In the film, John (Roddy Piper) is an ordinary construction worker who struggles to survive in life. One day, he finds some glasses that make him realize that reality is not what he thinks it is. The glasses show that some people on Earth are – really! – not like us and are seemingly among us just to divide us.
The glasses are also important in showing all the subliminal messages that are transmitted to us every day, whether on television, in advertisements or simply in certain colors. Carpenter thus tries to tell us that we all need to wear such "magic glasses" and realize the hidden power behind certain messages, as there are many of those among us who hugely benefit from spreading hatred, terror and chaos.
John Carpenter goes even further by suggesting us that the people in power know exactly what's going on and are comfortable with the situation. What they value most is to be at the top of the social structure, even in a fake society that is controlled, deep down, by a more developed species. In the film, the elites are represented as the alternative species, but in reality, they are only humans, like ourselves, who have "sold their soul" in exchange for material goods and perceived power.
They Live is a cult film with an excellent pace, provocative concepts, and some rather humorous moments. But above all, it is self-aware.
In 2015, Carpenter went even further in his position, stating to Yahoo News that "the film is not science fiction, it is a documentary.” The opinion was sustained in 2017 via Twitter post when he explained that the film "is about unrestrained capitalism,” demanding certain figures of the political landscape to stop using the message of the film for their own benefit when it has the opposite message. Boots Riley's radical Sorry to Bother You got flack for being too out-there. That film and They Live share the exact same message: elites are evil… eat the rich!
Wes Craven - For Those Who Live Below
The father of Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street may rarely have been blatantly political in his most famous films (although he was, here and there, in the construction of several characters and scenes), but he never hid his societal grievances. In The Serpent and the Rainbow, Craven makes clear criticisms of American foreign policy and its interventions in foreign countries, as well as about the way of life of those who live under dictatorial regimes – the clear analogy with zombies! However, it is in The People Under The Stairs, a film that mixes horror and comedy, that Craven's social criticism can be seen with greater clarity.
The first ten minutes are enough to drive away anyone who hates to see hard truths in their escapist horror entertainment.
“Don’t the landlord know that Mama’s sick... or Ruby’s got Babies?”
“Yeah, sure. He knows. He don’t care.”
The coldness with which this seemingly harmless exchange of words is a slap in the face, and the motto for all that is to come.
Gentrification and capitalism prioritized before human life. All the concepts have already been introduced in the time before, Craven even enters the house of the couple (and…brothers!) who practically own the whole neighborhood.
It turns out that this financially successful duo kidnaps and imprisons children, abuses them, harvests their organs sometimes even kills them. But, of course... the police are not suspicious, because we are talking about a rich white couple and therefore they cannot be kidnappers or murderers. At some point, there is an exchange of words between the woman and one of the policemen:
Mrs. Robeson: “It's as if we're the prisoners ... and the criminals roam free.”
Policeman: "I know what you mean," replies the policeman, looking around with an air of contempt for the suburban neighborhood.
When discussing the film, it's impossible to ignore the background explanation, revealed later on, for the house as seen through the eyes of the neighboring Black family we accompany through the film. It is explained that the family business owner of more than half the neighborhood began by deceiving others – in the business of funerals – and eventually grew into real estate. In the world of home-selling, they began making a lot of money by dishousing people The more money they made, the greedier they became, the richer they became, the crazier they became. The visual of the final scene is powerful: thousands of bills flying from the couple's home, passing into the hands of the people. Evil has fallen, people are free!
A bit unsubtle? Yes, sure. Craven didn’t need to be. In fact, this story was based on true events and the film became a commercial success.
Remember, next time you are watching something like Jordan Peele's Us – a film with a lot to say about class war, equal opportunities and privilege – appreciate that it can be dissected by millions of others online. Not every person will interpret it in the same way. That is ok. The important thing is that it will be discussed and socially relevant, regardless of its quality. Politics in horror is not a new concept; the only thing that has changed is the way that people are exposed to and react to it.